The Little-Known Story of a Woman Who Shaped History
Why â€˜Enchanted Islandsâ€™ author Allison Amend brought Frances Conway to life
Book of the Month, Allison Amend
Just looking at the cover of June selection, Enchanted Islands, you'll know there's something special about this book. Author Allison Amend loosely based this story on the memoirs of Frances Conway, one of the early explorers of the Galapagos Islands. Judge Alexander Chee describes her as: 'œA fascinating character, a woman society otherwise had no use for, who finds a way to become essential, first to herself, then to others.' We spoke to Allison about this character and much more, below.
Enchanted Islands was inspired by the memoirs of Frances Conway. Why did you first start reading those memoirs, and what particularly stood out to you that you wanted to create a historical fiction novel around her story?
I've been to the Galapagos Islands with my parents as a teenager. It's always just sort of lived in my imagination as a place I wanted to think more about and visit again. I was searching around for a novel topic after finishing A Nearly Perfect Copy. I had set my first novel in Oklahoma. That meant that I got to visit Oklahoma a lot.
While Oklahoma is lovely, I sort of thought that maybe I should set a book someplace I really wanted to visit. I set the next book in Paris. Then the book after that, I said, "I'll put it in the Galapagos." There's a series of murders and disappearances that happened on Floriana. I was reading about those. I love reading about those, so I thought that's where my story would lie.
As it turns out, that's actually been pretty well documented. There are first-hand accounts of it. There's been a documentary that's being filmed about it. I sort of felt that the truth was actually more interesting than fiction in that situation. Therefore, I would have to look elsewhere for a story. In doing that research, I came across Frances Conway's memoirs. I was just immediately enamored with her voice. She's funny. She's self-deprecating.
What also struck me about her writing was that there was so much she wasn't saying. It was almost dripping with subtext, and I wasn't sure what that subtext was. I felt like there was a whole story behind her story. That, of course, is an absolutely fertile place for fiction to grow. My imagination started running wild. That was when I started imagining, "What life has she led that has led her to write these memoirs that are so dripping with subtext?"
About that subtext, this will be a little bit of a spoiler-alert. What made you think that Ainslie and Frances' marriage was perhaps a sham?
I would call it a non-traditional marriage. I think that there's real feeling there. I think that the partnership is very real. I think it is definitely not what we considered then and still consider today as marriage in the traditional sense. I did somehow pick up from the memoir that Ainslie, perhaps, had a drinking problem. When I went to the Galapagos and met some descendants of people who've known them, they confirmed that one of the reasons they came to the Galapagos was to dry out because Ainslie had a problem with alcohol.
I was looking at photos of them. She's so much older. She's 11 or 12 years older. She's rather plain-looking. He is a tall, handsome, dashing, 40-year old in these photos. They just seem kind of incongruous. I thought, "What has brought these people together that seemed somewhat unlikely?" That was where I started thinking about what situation would have brought these two people together. They seem like an unlikely couple, right?
Yeah, I definitely thought that. What about the evidence that they were really sent to spy on Germans?
There is a rumor that still exists, that still suggests today, that they were there to look after the Germans. That rumor is somewhat founded by the fact that probably Ainslie wrote a government report on the feasibility of Floriana as an Air Force base. Most likely, they were contacted by the government after they'd already been living there. It seems pretty unlikely that they were spies.
That's why it's so fun to write fiction because it makes it so much more interesting. There is slightly more of an input. Some of the Germans that were living there were, at the very least, reporting occurrences back to the German government at the time. I'm not sure that any of the people living there were sent there as spies. Certainly, everyone who was there was keeping their eyes open and reporting activities back to the government.
The Galapagos Islands, actually, could have played a very important role in the 2nd World War. It would be a great staging area if you were going to attack the Panama Canal which, at that time, would have crippled the United States supply chain. I think there was strategic importance. It was enough that the American government put an Air Force base on the Galapagos Islands during the 2nd World War. Like all fiction, the bar for possibility is possibility. Could it possibly have happened? I think it could possibly have happened and so, therefore, I feel comfortable setting a novel in that situation.
We talk about that a lot because we feature a lot of historical fictions. One of our guest judges, Craig Ferguson, who endorsed The Moor's Account, his whole premise was just that - it could have happened.
Yeah. To me, too, the interesting thing about it is the characters. What do the characters do? How do the characters react? As long as it's not a completely strained credulity, I think watching the characters react to these situations is what the pleasure of fiction is to me.
The core relationship in this story is this life-long friendship between Frances and Rosalie that started when they were younger and continued across the country and into their ripe, old age. Where did you get the idea for that? Was that based on anything in the memoirs?
A very, very little bit. Both memoirs are dedicated to Rosalie Fisher. In the memoirs, Rosalie makes a very brief appearance as somebody who occasionally will send them a package from the United States. That is really all that's in the memoirs about her. I was really interested in the ways in which female friendship especially, but just life-long friendship in general, sort of plays out through a lifetime. I have friends from infancy and I'm now in my early 40s.
I assume that I will still be friends with them when we're in our 80s if we live that long. The ways in which the friendships change and deepen - and then you drift away for a while and you come back to each other - I find that was a really fascinating phenomenon. I wanted to explore that. [I found that] She'd just make a perfect character and sort of a foil for Frances in a lot of ways. Her life is completely opposite from Frances' in a way for both of them to examine their own lives against the foil of the other character.
Actually, a lot of the books that we're featuring next month, like Modern Lovers, focus on a strong female friendship at the core.
I think it's really interesting, and it's somewhat under examined too. Female friendships are complex in a way that I think are almost, in some ways, more complex than romantic relationships because they endure for so long.
Absolutely. I was really interested in the immigrant situation, the Polish versus the German-Jewish immigrant. My grandparents were Polish. They actually didn't escape. They survived the Holocaust, and then came here. I didn't realize that there were these stereotypes around the higher-class Germans versus the Polish Jews. How did you do that research?
I was just sort of doing general reading about that in New York. The difference between the German-Jews, who come over in the 1880s and then the Polish-Jews who came a little later in the '90s and then after the turn of the century, the difference was especially marked in New York City and in Chicago and less so in the smaller cities just because the population was less.
The Germans who came over immigrated for economic opportunity but sort of decided to come over whereas the Polish Jews were poor. They were uneducated. They came over out of desperation, in some ways. There was a real schism in the German population. Do we help others of our religion, or not? They don't speak our language. They're not educated like we are. We don't want to be lumped with them.
It's really interesting because you see it now with every wave of immigration, there are people who come first and become established, and then a larger group will come later and what responsibilities you have to the wave of immigrants to come later who need more help, who are "bringing your ethnic group" down. I thought that was a really interesting phenomenon that I wanted to explore and the ways in which both sides are complicit in that hierarchy.
Yeah. I found it fascinating. Now moving to the physical book itself, the cover artwork. How did that come about? It's gorgeous.
Yeah. I sort of brainstormed some ideas with my editor. Then they wanted to hire an outside illustrator which I thought was a really great idea. This particular illustrator has done work for L'Occitane. I love the organic nature of his artwork. I love the repeating pattern of it which I thought really tied in schematically with the book.
Then they sent the initial drawings over, and I thought it was fantastic. I wish I could say that I had more of a hand in designing it, but it really was the design team and this outside illustrator. I think the best covers, first of all, are eye-catching and intriguing but then also that it makes what's between the covers resonate more. I feel like this cover does a great job of that, this sort of uncontrollable lushness of organic life, the ways in which some patterns repeat but some are original and that it's completely uncontrollable.
My next question was going to be how important do you think it is to have a beautiful cover, but that kind of answers it.
Yeah. I think an excellent book can transcend a not great cover, and I think that a fantastic cover can help sell a book that is okay. Knowing how books are made, I still respond to covers. I know the cover is often very separate from the creation of the book, but still an eye-catching cover will make me pick up the book.
Between yours, Modern Lovers, The Veins of the Ocean. We have some really nice ones this month.
I love Alex Chee's cover too. It's like sassy on the front. It's fantastic.
It's awesome. My final question which I ask all of our authors is how does it feel that your book was selected as a Book of the Month?
I'm so excited and so proud. I'm really looking forward to hearing what people have to say about the themes that I've brought up in the book. There are so many books published that it does feel extra special to be selected, to have people read and analyze it. I'm just thrilled that it's going to get the book into more hands, have more people talking about it and to introduce more people to Frances.
I really think that these are the kinds of people who have influenced our history and we never hear about them. We hear about the heads of state. We hear about a hero, but you don't hear about the quieter people who are really shaping of our history.
Thank you Allison!
This interview has been edited.